MOVIES : The Defiant One : Sidney Poitier’s career has been one of self-determination, played out in Hollywood but grounded in reality

<i> Charles Champlin is the former arts editor of The Times</i>

On Thursday night, at festivities to be televised later, Sidney Poitier will become the American Film Institute’s 20th Life Achievement Award winner (a succession that began with John Ford in 1973 and has included James Cagney, Orson Welles, Bette Davis and Alfred Hitchcock, among others). Poitier is the first black person to be so honored, which is at once a commentary on his own great accomplishments but, hardly less, on the long struggle it has been for black actors and directors (Poitier is both) to achieve eminence in Hollywood.

Poitier, who was also honored with a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1989, was for years virtually the only important black male film star in American films. But, thanks not least to his own unprecedented success, he stands now, at the age of 65, as the forerunner of a large and growing population of actors that includes such figures as Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, James Earl Jones, Denzel Washington, Danny Glover, Larry Fishburne and Forest Whitaker among the men, and Whoopi Goldberg and Alfre Woodard among the women.

Poitier’s own story is cinematic in its often wryly surprising way. Born in Miami but raised in the West Indies, Poitier had emigrated to New York in his teens. He did a hitch in the Army at 16 by saying he was 18, and was later working as a kind of free-lance dishwasher and busboy, answering want ads and being sent out by employment agencies, when he saw an ad for actors. It was in the Amsterdam News, a Harlem newspaper, and had been placed by the American Negro Theater, which was then enjoying a large Broadway success with “Anna Lucasta.”


Blithely insisting he was already an actor, Poitier was handed a script at an audition and told to read one of the parts. “I’d only been to school for a year and a half, so at that point in my life I was unable to read very well,” Poitier said the other day in his by now beautifully modulated voice. “So I started reading very haltingly. Also I suffered from a very thick West Indian accent.”

His auditioner was Frederick O’Neal, one of the founders of the theater and a massive figure. “He came up on the stage, furious, and grabbed me by the scruff of my pants and my collar and marched me toward the door. Just before he threw me out he said, ‘Stop wasting people’s time! Why don’t you get yourself a job as a dishwasher.’ ”

The remark was so close to the facts of his life that it shook Poitier. “Was there a mark on me that my destiny is that of a dishwasher?” he asked himself. Walking toward 7th Avenue to catch a bus downtown to the employment agencies, he made up his mind, rather defiantly, to become an actor--at least long enough to show O’Neal that he could be an actor if he chose to be, before he pursued something else--if he chose to.

He went back to washing dishes, but also bought a radio and spent all his spare time listening to the announcers--”trying to lighten the broad A that characterizes West Indian speech patterns.” Unaware of printed plays, he bought some copies of “True Confessions” magazines in search of a piece he could memorize and recite.

Months later he went back to the theater again on an audition day, along with 70 other young hopefuls. They did soliloquies or scenes; he recited his paragraph from “True Confessions.” He received the familiar don’t-call-us routine, and when the theater did call him it was to say he’d been rejected.

“I found that that was devastating, and I couldn’t accept it,” Poitier remembers. He went to the theater again and sought out another of the founders, Abram Hill. Poitier told Hill he’d noticed the theater had no janitor and he volunteered to do the job in exchange for acting lessons. “And that’s how I got into the American Negro Theater,” Poitier says.


After nine months of lessons, he was given a chance to understudy a role in the annual student production, that year a play called “Days of Our Youth.” The actor he was understudying was Harry Belafonte, later a film star in his own right, although his greater fame has been as a singing entertainer.

In the fine show-biz tradition, Poitier went on one night when Belafonte couldn’t make it, and was seen by a visiting director who was casting an all-black production of “Lysistrata.” He hired Poitier for a small role. It was his first professional job and he was terrified. “Oh, my lord, I’m going out there in front of 1,200 people,” he told himself.

He forgot his opening line, jumping several speeches down into the script and naturally terrified the young actor playing opposite him. The other actor manfully went back to the first line, but Poitier jumped even further forward in the script. “At this point the audience starts laughing. My assumption is they’re laughing at me because I’m so dumb.” Finally Poitier ran out of lines and left the stage. “I was in the rest of the play but only as a kind of extra standing with other people.”

He went to the dressing room, changed out of the toga into street clothes and walked from the Belasco Theater all the way north to 155th Street where he lived. “That’s the end of the theater business, boy. I don’t like people laughing at me,” he told himself.

But at one in the morning he went out and bought the first edition of the Daily News. The reviewer had hated the play, which closed in three days, but, as Poitier recalls, he also asked, “Who was the kid who came out in the first act and stole the show?” Several of the other reviewers also had good words for Poitier.

John Wyberg, who was producing “Anna Lucasta,” saw the notices and invited Poitier to become an understudy in the company, at $40 a week. “It wasn’t a lot of bucks, but it was more than I had ever earned.” His professional career had begun, although the “Lysistrata” experience had made him painfully aware how much he had yet to learn. “I set out after that to dimensionalize my understanding of the craft,” as Poitier puts it.


He played “Anna Lucasta” in New York and on the national tour, appeared in an Army documentary in 1949 and a year later was cast by Joe Mankiewicz in “No Way Out.” He’d been one of several dozen actors auditioned by the Fox casting people in New York, and one of the smaller number who were actually screen-tested. The tests were sent to Mankiewicz in Hollywood. Mankiewicz flew to New York to oversee further screen tests himself, but gave the role to Poitier even before he made the test.

It was a memorable debut for Poitier, who played a doctor under vicious attack by Richard Widmark, whose brother’s life Poitier had been unable to save. The film’s look at racial prejudice was so explosive that the film was banned in Chicago, but the Mankiewicz script, co-authored with Lesser Samuels, won an Oscar nomination, and Poitier was identified as a film actor with a future.

His timing could hardly have been better. Hollywood films were changing under the competitive pressure from television (to offer what television could not do at all or could not do as well) and under the aesthetic influence of the neo-realist films out of Italy in particular, to consider life more honestly and without mandatory happy endings.

The days of racial stereotyping were far from over, but “No Way Out” reflected the stirrings toward more significant roles for blacks and better representations of the black experience in American society. It was an unprecedented opportunity for black actors of star quality and here--handsome, intense, intelligent, able and likable (the West Indian broad A well-subdued)--was Poitier.

He went to England for his second film, Alan Paton’s South African racial drama, “Cry the Beloved Country,” another film which suggested that the winds of change were rolling through the film form.

Poitier’s own filmography is in fact a strong reflection of the expanding willingness of the Hollywood studio system to deal with material that was both sensitive and controversial. Richard Brooks’ “The Blackboard Jungle,” Martin Ritt’s “Edge of the City,” Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones,” a gentler film like Daniel Petrie’s “A Raisin in the Sun” from Lorraine Hansberry’s play and script, all now have classic status, not least because they were exemplary conjoinings of actor and material.


Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in 1967 was in its time (now an astonishing quarter-century ago) the chanciest material to date for the wide audience: a close and sympathetic look at an interracial love story that ends happily rather than tragically. The dice were in a sense loaded: Poitier as a world-class doctor, Spencer Tracy (in his last role) and Katharine Hepburn as the girl’s parents. What was there to object to? For whatever complex of reasons, including a maturing of the society at large, the film played virtually without incident across the country.

By 1972, Poitier had his own production company at Columbia. His old friend Harry Belafonte approached him with a script, “Buck and the Preacher,” a comedy they both liked. “We hired a producer and a director and went off to Mexico to shoot it.” Creative differences arose; Belafonte and Poitier and the director parted company (amicably enough, Poitier says) and told Columbia that Poitier would direct until the studio could send down “a director of your liking and your choosing.”

Columbia had trouble choosing a man of its liking. After a week a studio man came down and looked at what Poitier had already shot and told him to finish the picture himself. “And that’s how I became a director,” says Poitier.

Directing by now has become a collateral career with Poitier. His first films, “Buck and the Preacher” and “Uptown Saturday Night,” helped encourage a trend toward black-themed films that were aimed at a crossover, mainstream audience. The rise of heavily violent blaxploitation films pleased neither black nor white audiences and threatened to curtail a healthy trend. But the subsequent success of young black directors like Spike Lee and John Singleton, who have come along since Poitier began his second career, indicates that there continues to be a large audience for black-themed films.

From early days Poitier has picked his material carefully. He looks, he says, for stories “that have a commonality with the universal human condition. Whatever our cultural background, whatever our psychological profile, whatever region of the globe we live in, there are certain things we all share in common.

“We suffer pain, we hang tight to hope, we nurture expectations, we are plagued occasionally by fears, we are haunted by defeats and unrealized hopes. . . . And being the kind of person I am, have always been, I’ve always felt that one of the most devastating states of mind is the absence of hope. And that is a condition that envelops a goodly number of people everywhere. And when you make drama of that condition, it’s almost as if words are not necessary. It has its own language--spoken everywhere, understood everywhere.”


Poitier and his wife for 16 years, the Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus, have children in school in New York and so are on the move a lot. “We visit the Caribbean. We go to other parts of the world. A long time ago I decided I lived in the world. I don’t just live in California, I live in the world.”

Work, Poitier says, “is not the prime mover of my life anymore. It’s very important, but it’s not the nerve center. There is the family, and there is music and there is literature. There is the explosion of cultural convulsions that is rattling the world. I ask my friends the question: Where will we in America be in 25 years? How can we measure where we will be if we don’t have a program as to where we would like to be 25 years from now. And nowhere do I see a program. I get the feeling of willy-nilliness. I get the feeling of drifting.”

Poitier is modest, even evasive, about the influence he in his career may have had on the possibilities for later generations of black actors and filmmakers, or on the kind of black roles that are written, the representations of the black experience that films show.

Is he in some way a symbol of hope to those who may live with the sense of hopelessness he spoke. “The hopelessness of which I speak is not limited. It’s in everything. There is no racial or ethnic domination of hopelessness. It’s everywhere.”

Does he really not sometimes feel that he may have some small influence on the positive side of things?

“In the privacy of my own thoughts I might from time to time say such a thing,” Sidney Poitier says with a slow and cryptic smile. “But I’m not going to articulate it here for you,” he adds, the smile widening to a grin, as he points to his visitor’s tape recorder.


The Films of Sidney Poitier

As an actor: No Way Out (1952) Cry, the Beloved Country (1952) Red Ball Express (1952) Go, Man, Go! (1954) The Blackboard Jungle (1955) Goodbye, My Lady (1956) Edge of the City (1957) Something of Value (1957) The Defiant Ones (1958) The Mark of the Hawk (1958) Porgy and Bess (1959 ) All the Young Men (1960) Virgin Islands (1960) Paris Blues (1961) A Raisin in the Sun (1961) Pressure Point (1962) Lilies of the Field (1963) The Long Ships (1964) The Bedford Incident (1965) The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) A Patch of Blue (1965) The Slender Thread (1965) Duel at Diablo (1966) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) In the Heat of the Night (1967) To Sir, With Love (1967) For Love of Ivy (1968) The Lost Man (1969) They Call Me Mr. Tibbs (1970) Brother John (1971) The Organization (1971) Buck and the Preacher (1972) A Warm December (1973) Uptown Saturday Night (1974) Let’s Do It Again (1975) The Wilby Conspiracy (1975) A Piece of the Action (1977) Shoot to Kill (1988) Little Nikita (1988) As director: Buck and the Preacher (1972) A Warm December (1973) Uptown Saturday Night (1974) Let’s Do It Again (1975) A Piece of the Action (1977) Stir Crazy (1980) Hanky-Panky (1982) Fast Forward (1985) Ghost Dad (1990)